The outstanding 2007 Chilean vintage

  • Monday 8 June 2009

Words like ‘historic’ and ‘exceptional’ were in short supply in the wine world in 2007 – except among Chile’s normally reserved winemakers. Peter Richards looks at what has made the vintage so outstanding.

On the face of it, 2007 in vintage terms was an annus horribilis for the wine world. Drought, frost, floods and fires hit Australia. A soggy summer in Europe saw production quantity plummet across Italy, while in France the vintage provoked much hand-wringing from Bordeaux to Burgundy. All round, quantity was down, the mood sombre.

I harboured a particular interest in the 2007 vintage. It was the year my first child was born, and I had been hoping to invest in a few carefully chosen cases of fine red Burgundy or Bordeaux for her to open at a star-studded 21st, or for me to sell to fund some noble, ambitious endeavour. Slowly, as the vintage reports filtered in, I watched my hopes fade.

Happily, however, the doom and gloom soon lifted (even before the bright spots, from German Riesling to white Burgundy via a Port declaration, became apparent). It happened while I was enjoying a delicious plate of Patagonian tooth fish on a sunny, brine-scented restaurant terrace in the Chilean seaside village of Algarrobo. But it was neither the setting nor the food that was on my mind: it was the superlative quality of the 2007 vintage in my glass. It was like previous vintages but notably purer, more expressive, finer textured: altogether more drinkable. And I found myself thinking, with surprising conviction: this is what I will be laying down for my daughter.

The 2007 vintage in Chile was spectacular for red wine. A long, cool season resulted in naturally low yields (on average 15–30% down from 2006), slow maturation and a late harvest (up to three weeks later than 2006 for many reds).

For the wines, this meant good colour, fresh natural acidity and low alcohol levels. All in all, a vintage that majors on drinkability over power, which combines a rare ability to age with a seductive, come-hither openness, and which should reward those looking for elegance, complexity and freshness.

‘Elegant, fresh and intense,’ is how Errázuriz winemaker Francisco Baettig sums it up when I ask him for one key point to convey about the vintage. ‘I couldn’t just pick one,’he adds. ‘Sorry.’

It is a curious phenomenon that the best Chilean vintages of late have come in the odd years – 1999, 2001, ’03, ’05, and ’07. But for widely respected Concha y Toro winemaker Marcelo Papa, even within this context, 2007 is a stand-out. ‘Compare 2003 and 2007,’ he says. ‘Both of them made very concentrated wines due to low yields. But the difference is that 2003 was very warm and thus gave more aggressive wines. 2007, by contrast, is all about softness and freshness, with good structure. It’s dramatically different from all recent vintages. It’s outstanding.’

It is a testament to the quality of the vintage, and its inherent marketing value, that Concha y Toro has taken the unprecedented step of inserting a neck sticker on its Casillero del Diablo brand with the strapline: ‘2007: historic vintage’. This constitutes a strong message from an industry leader, and it is one that other producers are quick to echo.

Ventisquero head winemaker Felipe Tosso, not usually one to wax lyrical, is almost poetic in his assessment: ‘The wines are elegant and structured. It was a beautiful vintage: almost perfect. The best red vintage of the decade.’ Aurelio Montes characterises 2007 as, ‘an outstanding vintage: solid wines with firm yet soft tannin and great complexity and elegance.’

O’Fournier’s José Manuel Ortega sums it up: ‘2007 was exceptional; technically, the wines were perfect in terms of acidity, alcohol, colour, fruit and elegance of tannin.’

When it comes to buying 2007 Chilean reds, one golden rule applies: choose only from the best producers. There are three reasons for this. First, vineyards cropped too high or achieve proper ripeness in these cool conditions. Second, while some of the cooler regions (such as Curicó and Maule) fared less well than the warmer ones, good producers in these areas nevertheless made some outstanding reds. Thirdly, while some later ripening varieties (like Carmenere) struggled to reach full ripeness in some sites, the best producers either declassified the fruit or managed this well in the cellar.

Some of the greatest successes seem to have come from quality-driven areas that usually give riper styles – such as Apalta or Alto Maipo – but which in 2007 had more restraint. ‘The characteristics of the vintage are reflected best in our Maipo Cabernets,’ notes Santa Rita winemaker Andrés Ilabaca. ‘They combine the elegance of a cooler year with the maturity and concentration of a warmer year, via wines of great balance and intensity.’ San Pedro head winemaker Marco Puyo singles out Cabernet ‘for its good acidity, which means great vibrancy and ageing potential.’

As for how the wines are developing, the consensus is positive, albeit one that warrants patience. Montes forecasts long- term bottle ageing of 10 to 12 years for the top reds. Tosso describes the premium reds as, ‘still young, a little bit shy and tight’ but foresees them starting to show in another three to nine months. Ilabaca sums up the likely evolution as, ‘Very good, with good integration and complex bouquets developing – but above all wines that are retaining the vibrancy that is at the heart of the 2007 vintage.’

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